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Harper dodges a bullet

Now that the RCMP has decided not to file criminal charges against Nigel Wright for reimbursing Mike Duffy’s housing allowance out of his own pocket, there remains only a faint possibility that Canadians will ever know for sure whether the prime minister was in the loop of the controversial arrangement between his former chief of staff and the suspended senator.

An apparent discrepancy between Harper’s categorical assertion that the peculiar reimbursement of Duffy’s unjustified expenses was engineered behind his back and an email trail that suggests otherwise would have best been cleared up by having the prime minister and his former aide testify under oath in a court of law.

That — to both their predictable relief — will not happen.

Wright — as opposed to at least one other former Harper chief of staff — seems disinclined to widely share the insights he gained over his tenure at the PMO.

As a result, the prime minister probably does not have to worry about a(nother) tell-all book making its way up the list of political bestsellers in a year or two.

But, as of now, both he and his former aide may have a vested interest in hoping that Duffy also ends up off the RCMP hook — at least for his part in the transaction that involved the PMO.

Otherwise, Wright might still see the inside of a court of law as a witness for the prosecution and, in that capacity, be put on the spot over the specifics that attended his decision to cut Duffy a cheque.

In a fiery speech to the upper house at the time of his forced farewell to Parliament last fall, the senator made it clear that, come what may, Duffy was determined not to go down alone.

Meanwhile, the RCMP’s conclusion that it does not have grounds to charge Wright should provide the government and the prime minister with a modest measure of comfort.

Harper can now at least argue that whatever was initiated right under his prime ministerial nose over the course of Wright’s negotiations with Duffy was not illegal.

The fact that the police did not find that the PMO engaged in criminal behaviour in an attempt to prevent embarrassment to the government is certainly much better than the alternative.

But the partisan celebrations that have attended that development in so many Conservative quarters (albeit not the PMO) are way out of line with the actual situation.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

The RCMP announcement that it is closing Wright’s file as it pertains to the Duffy cheque is a rare piece of positive news for the government in an episode that has so far defeated its damage-control efforts.

But the ethical parameters within which Canada’s political class is expected to operate are not those of the Criminal Code.

It is not good enough to brag about not having been found to cross the legal line, especially when one has come so close to the line as to warrant the full attention of the RCMP.

On that score the emails between the main protagonists of the affair in the Senate, the Conservative party and the PMO that have come to light as part of the police investigation did not reflect the best practices one would associate with a scrupulous ethical culture.

If anything that is not specifically illegal were fair game in politics there would be no need for a binding ethics code on MPs and senators, no role for the ethics watchdogs and no duty on a prime minister to enforce a standard of behaviour higher than the minimum required to stay out of court and out of jail.

It was the argument that the Liberals had been guilty of dereliction of that very duty that won Harper his first election victory on the heels of the sponsorship scandal in 2006.

Back then he promised to do better. This week’s events only suggest that he has not done worse than his predecessors.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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